Heavy Metal, Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Black Metal… The evolution of rock’s most intense, virtuosic and transgressive genre has been a hell-bound journey from the blues-based heavy rock of the 1970s to the brutal, blasting cacophonies of the underground extreme metal scene that emerged in the 1990s…
Proudly sitting outside the norms of popular music, metal musicians and fans eschew transient trends of the day, choosing to play by their own rules, often embracing ideas and aesthetics that go beyond the polite norms of mainstream society.
Jonas Åkerlund’s film Lords of Chaos, which our own Chris Ward reviewed here, follows the outrageous antics of the legendary Norwegian band Mayhem, an outfit who personify metal at its most uncompromising and true. The film charts the band’s rise to the top of the underground metal scene, their descent into a mire of anti-Christian activity and murder, and their part in the creation of new terrifying sub-genre of metal – True Norwegian Black Metal.
To celebrate the release of Lords of Chaos, we look at some of the most memorable metal album covers, from the founding textures of the genre to underground classics of the Norwegian scene.
Black Sabbath ‘Volume 4’ (1972)
Black Sabbath are undoubtedly the founding fathers of all that is heavy and doom-laden in music, and their extraordinarily influential 1972 opus, Volume 4 occupies an upper echelon on the strata of metal greatness. It also features an iconic sleeve – a yellow tinted photograph of Ozzy Osbourne with hands raised in the peace sign, taken during a Black Sabbath concert. A stark 3-color design, it has become a classic cover over the years, inspiring similar designs by metal bands including Sleep and Pantera.
Iron Maiden ‘Killers’ (1981)
Iron Maiden’s second album Killers captured the pack leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement in full ascendency, with its stunning combination of street-metal aggression and virtuoso musicianship. The cover was the second to depict the band’s legendary zombie-like mascot, Eddie. Designed and painted by Derek Riggs, Eddie is depicted prowling an East End street by night (Maiden’s then stomping ground), his hand raised holding a bloodied axe as a dying victim claws at his shirt. The intricately rendered scene is definitive metal artwork, marking a key moment in metal’s association with horror and death.
Judas Priest ‘British Steel’ (1980)
With their sixth album Judas Priest presented a more street-wise, stripped-back sound, and the inclusion of bonafide metal classics such as “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight” soon secured the album’s place as a genre classic. The cover features a hand gripping the edges of a razor blade emblazoned with the band’s logo and the album title. The playing on the record is definitely razor-sharp, but its worth noting the image does not show any blood coming from the hand. Priest’s music became more accessible with this record and perhaps this iconic image sign-posts this slight softening of their hard-edge.
Venom – Black Metal (1980)
Newcastle upstarts Venom really laid down the gauntlet with their second album Black Metal. One of the most influential metal albums of all time (and one of the most extreme of its era), it combined clatteringly fast punk metal with extreme satanic and controversial lyrics and imagery. The albums cover was also a milestone: the band’s elaborate logo; the gothic treatment of the album title; the depiction of a pentagram, and the goat-like likeness of Satan – these aspects would prove hugely influential on the iconography of satanic-themed death and black metal in the coming years. A totally classic album, with a totally classic cover.
Metallica ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986)
Metallica are the largest selling metal band of all time. The stadium-filling titan’s third album, Master of Puppets was released March 1986. Their last with bass legend Cliff Burton, it captured a band on the crest of a wave, pioneering the then burgeoning thrash sound with a set of extremely well written and performed metal anthems. Conceived by the band and legendary music manager Peter Mensch, the album cover depicts a cemetery field of white crosses, manipulated on string by a pair of hands in a blood-red sky. The images of war, political manipulation and death loom large – themes redolent in the band’s lyrics on this and other albums.
Bathory ‘Under the Sign of The Black Mark’ (1986)
Swedish Bathory are undoubtedly one the most important band’s in the evolution of Scandinavian metal and underground metal in general. The band pioneered a raging style of evil-sounding metal, created in circumstances of mystery, and pervaded with images of darkness, satanism, Viking heritage, blood, fire and death. Their legendary third album “Under the Sign of The Black Mark” provided a primitive black metal template that subsequent bands such as Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal and Mayhem would take huge influence from. The album’s cover depicts a goat-headed baphomet raging in the caves of hell. Although it looks like an intricate painting it was in-fact a photograph taken in the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm. The Baphomet in question was Leif Ehrnborg, a then-top-class Swedish bodybuilder.
Mayhem ‘Dawn Of The Black Hearts’ (1995)
Lastly, we come to the unofficial Mayhem album ‘Dawn of The Black Hearts’. Infamously controversial, the album cover is a hand-taken photograph of Mayhem’s first lead singer ‘Dead; (Per Yngve Ohlin), following his tragic suicide. In a macabre twist the photo was taken by fellow bandmember Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth) upon discovering the dead body. Adding to this, Euronymous then went on to create necklaces for the remaining bandmembers made from pieces of Dead’s skill – just a taster of the darkness and controversy that was to follow the bands story, which is depicted in Lords of Chaos – based on both truth and lies.